NASHVILLE -- Now that the race is suddenly less about what you know than it is about who you once knew, the real question is not -- as Sen. John McCain would have it -- who the real Barack Obama is.
The real question is: Who is the real John McCain? (And is he listening to Sarah Palin?)
McCain and Obama enter Tuesday night's second presidential debate at Belmont University with a real sense of a race that's slipping away from McCain -- and a growing realization in GOP circles that the Republican ticket has a dwindling number of chances to reclaim the narrative.
(If the national polls don't convince you -- take Ohio, please.)
McCain gets the format he wants, but not the backdrop. If the debate follows the logical progression of the week, we will continue down the path of least subsistence into out-and-out, guilt-by-association name-calling -- led there, in all likelihood, by McCain, whose campaign is trying to thrust "character" into a campaign that may not welcome it.
Does McCain want to go there? Will/should even nasty attacks register when compared to the psychological blows arriving in mailboxes these days, depicting shattered 401(k)s? And with Tuesday night's town-hall format, does a candidate want to throw bombs when there are civilians in range?
It may be too late for those choices: It's on, and it's ugly. In the run-up to the debate No. 2, McCain and (particularly) Palin have gone personal -- and Team Obama responded by bringing up the Keating 5.
"Who is the real Barack Obama?" McCain said Monday (with now-casual references to Obama's "lies"), per ABC's Jake Tapper and Bret Hovell. "Even at this late hour in the campaign there are things we don't know about Senator Obama or the record that he brings to this campaign."
And -- going further, but still not as far as she wants to go -- Palin "invoked fear for the first time when discussing Sen. Barack Obama's connection to former 60's radical William Ayers," per ABC's Imtiyaz Delawala.
"I am just so fearful that this is not a man who sees America the way that you and I see America -- as the greatest source for good in this world," said Palin, R-Alaska.
Obama, she said, "launched his political career in the living room of a domestic terrorist."
No turning back from here: "Mr. McCain made clear on Monday that he wanted to make the final month of the race a referendum on Mr. Obama's character, background and leadership -- a polite way of saying he intends to attack him on all fronts and create or reinforce doubts about him among as many voters as possible," Adam Nagourney writes in The New York Times. "And Mr. Obama's campaign signaled that it would respond in kind, setting up an end game dominated by an invocation of events and characters from the lives of both candidates."
"Look, I'm not sitting here with my feet up," said senior Obama adviser David Axelrod.
"The back-and-forth, coming on the eve of a presidential debate tonight, represented some of the strongest language yet in a race that has grown increasingly negative and signaled that the final four weeks of the campaign could grow even nastier," Anne E. Kornblut and Michael Abramowitz write in The Washington Post.